Smart Defense is faltering because it cannot succeed with good PR alone. As Dutch Defense Minister Hans Hillen explained at a 2011 conference, "we have to build a stronger case for defense". To do this, NATO must help member states address the lack of democratic debate about Smart Defense in terms of both costs and benefits for military sovereignty. NATO should then focus on examples of existing "best practice" mechanisms to inform future military co-operation.
First, NATO must accept that concerns about diminishing military sovereignty in Smart Defense cannot be wished away by a positive PR campaign. Currently, officials tend to utter the lexicon of Smart Defense entirely in relation to benefits. In Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen's words, it grants "more security for less money."
However, whilst bilaterally or multilaterally co-owning or operating equipment can be more cost efficient, this comes with an accompanying degree of constraint on that asset's use. Similarly, in many cases, choosing to share an asset abroad will simultaneously lead to unpopular job and budget cuts at home, a factor rarely discussed publicly.
National politicians must justify decisions in their home political forums. They must also submit themselves to democratic scrutiny. Simplistic positive arguments would not carry the day in a political debate over, for example, healthcare or education. Likewise then, NATO should realize that this entirely positive rhetoric has failed to convince national political communities of the need for Smart Defense.
The case for defense has not been argued well enough.
A stronger foundation for this case would be an honest, open debate about the benefits and costs for national sovereignty of sharing equipment. This conversation should shift to include the painful possibility of base closures and redundancies, directly contrasted to the new capacities and capabilities sharing will grant that nation for future operations. Only by thoughtfully contrasting these dynamics can concerns over sovereign independence be tackled.
A good example of such a process can be seen in the discourse around the bilateral Franco-British Lancaster House military treaty, which has assessed in some depth the potential ramifications of sharing aircraft carriers. This assessment has not reversed the decision -- instead, it has given it due democratic scrutiny and a corresponding legitimacy in both nations.
NATO should encourage other nations to similarly weigh up, publicly and politically, what they stand to gain and lose through Smart Defense initiatives such as sharing equipment. Only if the discourse is both democratic and well informed can national politicians justify sharing assets more widely.
In terms of mechanisms, NATO has tended to be vague and unspecific in giving "best practice" case studies for Smart Defense. This has left the initiative's advocates with little ammunition in the debate.
NATO should now spur a greater focus on existing co-management military mechanisms that have proven their worth to military officials in recent years -- most recently during Operation Unified Protector over Libya in 2011.
The strongest example of this is the multilateral European Air Transport Command (EATC). Operational since 2010, the EATC comprises four NATO's members (Bel, Fr, Gr, Nl) pooling and co-managing a fleet of over 200 logistics and transport aircraft -- assets in high demand across the Alliance.
Several characteristics mark the EATC as an effective model. It combines a healthy degree of regional partnership with an obvious strategic need, thus overcoming departmental reticence. It focuses on non-lethal assets which generally lack political controversy. It also provides direct support with training and maintenance budgets -- priority areas for Smart Defense.
Most importantly, officials from nations in the EATC have expressed satisfaction with its operational effectiveness, notably when deploying aircraft to evacuate European citizens at the beginning of the Libyan crisis.
NATO should thus spur members of the EATC to share their experiences with other nations more widely, and to propagate this model for future regional Smart Defense partnerships. It should also consider employing similar pooling mechanisms for future capability needs.
The recent procurement of five Skyhawk drones by the Alliance Ground Surveillance program by a coalition of 13 nations could be a good step in this direction. The suggestion by the then US Defense Department official (and now Deputy NATO Secretary General) Alexander Vershbow, that nations should seek shared air-to-air refueling assets could similarly emulate the best practice EATC model.
Ideally, this two-pronged strategy will prove self-supporting. Increased democratic debate and understanding about Smart Defense will fuel expanding budgetary allocation to shared assets. Further operational successes in the EATC mold will then demonstrate that this is money well spent to domestic audiences and politicians.
This cycle of legitimate debate and effective investment could be a sustainable, efficient and practical solution to the challenge of Smart Defense.
Jonathan Dowdall is a Brussels-based journalist and researcher focused on defence and security affairs. Employers and publishers include SECURITY EUROPE, the Security & Defence Agenda and DefenceReport.com.